Local Palestinian to Speak at Forum
Interview with Bishara Costandi, who will speak at the Palestine Action Group Forum on Saturday, May 18th in Portland (6pm, Friendly House, 1737 NW 26th). Bishara, originally from Jaffa, is the founder of Arabs Building Community. He is also a member of Portland Peaceful Response Coalition and the Palestine Action Group. He can be reached at: email@example.com.
I interviewed Bishara last Saturday. Aysha, another IMC activist, listened to the interview and jumped in with some questions at the end. We talked for well over an hour; this is an edited transcript of the interview. I strongly encourage people to come out to the Palestine Action Group forum on Saturday (6pm, Friendly House, 1737 NW 26th) and listen to him and Will Seaman talk about the situation in Palestine and US support for Israel.
Emily: What's your impression of what's happening in Palestine right now?
Bishara: The impression that comes to mind very strongly is how we are still living in a colonial time and, I don't believe that history repeats itself, but it's as if history is repeating itself. There is a repetition of how Israel took Palestine. Maybe repetition is not the best word, but their true identity is coming out in this, the true measure of how Israel and Zionism think is coming out in this.
They demolished about 500 villages and towns in 1948, completely erased by official request. Dyan, for example, was saying we shouldn't leave any village or any Arabic name that will give the history of the Palestinian people. This is in his memoirs. Also, since 1948 up until now, they are trying to say that it was the Arabs who started this whole war, when the historical facts refute what they're saying. They were attacking Palestinian villages in territory given to the Palestinians in order to provoke a response. The Arabs, of course, were doing nothing, like today, they were just shooting all these nice statements in the air and had no will to help the Palestinians. So all these things are reminiscent of that, the same thing over and over again.
E: So why do you think it's happening now, at this moment?
B: The Palestinians have never stopped resisting the Occupation, not since 1918 or before. But we take 1918 as a point of demarcation so to speak, because in 1917 England, through Balfour, who was the foreign minister, gave the Zionist movement a promise to create a homeland for the Jews. Britain appointed itself as the mandate power. The very benign meaning for "mandate" is that, we're going to help you stand on your feet and become civilized. But the reality is that, we're going to mandate how the future is going to be, so we're going to build British institutions and infiltrate your minds with British culture, the same thing that's happening nowadays with America. They declared that in 1917and they immediately sent a Zionist man named Herbert Samuel to oversee the Jewish immigration into Palestine. So Jews started coming in in droves, and the population balance shifted, from 1918 to the 1930s. They almost became the majority, when they were about 10 or 20 percent of the population before that.
So this resistance of the Palestinians to that invasion has never stopped. There was a big revolution in 1936 that lasted 3 years. The Palestinian people went on strike - every single man, every single woman, every single child. You couldn't go to a store for 6 months in 1936, for 6 months they closed the whole thing, protesting against both the British colonial power and the Jewish influx - the Zionist influx, really. In those days people did not understand, they were all peasants - Jewish, Zionist - they would just see a Jewish person coming. Like in South Africa, people would see a white person coming, they would just say "the whites" but they really meant the apartheid system. But the revolution of 1936 was defeated, specifically because, like I was telling you before, the Arabs did nothing.
Now, the Palestinian resistance has never stopped, but it has gone up and down, up and down. However, if you make a line across, you would see it rising, and now, this is the highest boiling point since 1948. There is a qualitative difference in the sense that it is the first time since 1948 that the Palestinians are fighting with Israel on their own land. They had Lebanon, they had Jordan - all these previous experiences with Israel were from the outside. So, after 1987 when the first Intifada took place, this is the point when things shifted. During the years of the first Intifada the Palestinians who are in Israel as Israeli citizens did not take part.
This Intifada, since it started in September 2000, Palestinians gave their lives to it. It connected Palestinian people all over. Both inside the "48 zone," as we call the area occupied in 1948, and the "67" which is the West Bank and Gaza. And the Palestinians in Lebanon who would march down to the borders throwing stones at the Israeli soldiers, going out to demonstrations at the camps in Egypt and Saudi Arabia and across the Arab world.
When you look at all these things and then you look at the fact that the anger is coming not only against the Israelis but also against the United States, you will understand why Israel is hitting so heavy right now.
E: You're saying it's because they feel more threatened than they felt before.
B: Yes! Newsweek came out with a cover story, something like, Is this the end of Israel. Of course it's not the end of Israel! But it reflects what's happening in the Jewish mind. The Zionist movement presents these questions as if it's a fait accompli to create fear and more attachment to Israel.
This particular Intifada really brought forward this particular fight now that has gone from throwing stones to actually carrying guns. A gun versus a tank doesn't do much, but Palestinians decided to carry guns. The Palestinians finally came to the point of saying, We don't care anymore. They're killing us, they're killing us. They're going to demolish us, they're going to demolish us. At least we'll die fighting. It reveals that this whole struggle has never been a struggle over land and borders, but it's a struggle of existence.
It is a life and death question to the Zionist movement. It brings out fear in the Jewish community around the world that the end of Israel is the end of the Jewish people. Which is a bunch of bull. But it is so deeply entrenched in their minds. To the Palestinians in particular, and the Arabs, it is also a struggle for existence because it is a struggle in which the Israelis and the Zionist movement are willing to annihilate the Palestinian people to maintain the state of Israel and its colonial purposes. Fifty percent of the Palestinian people under the Occupation are less than 16 years of age - they didn't leave anybody who's an adult to fight. This has showed the fascism of the Israeli government, and shifted the whole thing to the right, especially Israeli public opinion.
E: Do you think that most Israelis support what Sharon is doing? Because I know there have been huge demonstrations for peace there.
B: They have a moral dilemma - they are schizophrenic. On one side, they don't want war, but Zionism benefits so much from any threat to the Zionist movement that it creates this imagery by nature. In the beginning, it was an intentional calculation; now it's become spontaneous. Jews in America have shifted to the right, Jews in Israel have shifted to the right. They don't want war, and they don't like Sharon maybe, but Sharon to them is their safety because nobody - neither Barak nor Rabin nor anybody was able to do what he's doing in order to bring them to what they think is safety.
E: That "safety" means annihilating Palestine altogether?
B: Yes, it means beating them and not allowing them to annihilate "us" in their minds, as if they're going to kill the Jews. Now what happens is that when someone goes after them with a suicide bombing, they say, See, they want to kill us all. But they don't talk about what Israel is doing to the Palestinians, to the children, they don't talk about what America is doing in Iraq or in Afghanistan or in Kosovo for that matter. So it is really a question of existence, of self-determination, of how are we going to live. And on this level for the Israelis it's also a question of existence, the Jewish people think that it's a question of life or death for them.
To Sharon it's not the Jewish people, it's the colonial project that's going to be ended. It's like with Boethe, the head of the apartheid regime in South Africa. To him, it's not the end of the white people living in South Africa, it's the end of the apartheid system. So to Sharon, this colonial thing is going to be over.
But what has also appeared here in this fight is the wall that Zionism has created around the Jews of the world. They created this place for them called Israel under the rubric of saving them. They never stop saying that we're surrounded by this and we're surrounded by that. But they don't raise the question, Why are we so isolated? It's created a mental ghetto for the Jews of the world. The American Jews think the same way. When their real salvation is going to be by breaking these walls and mixing with people and not, In the name of saving myself I should kill another. Now the Palestinians, who have suffered pogroms and holocausts and I don't know what, are receiving the brunt of this thinking. So all these things are at play. And it's not going to end soon, by the way, it's not going to end soon.
Another problem is our leadership. I have never cared for Yassar Arafat, I never had any respect for him. He represents a particular class of the Palestinian people, the class that is going to benefit from what they call a peace process, which is just a tranquilization of the situation, an absence of war maybe. So that one of his big advisors can import the big computer brands into the West Bank and Gaza, another guy can import dealerships for certain cars, another guy can import something else. You hear about all these things - we're going to rebuild Jenin, we're going to rebuild this and rebuild that. What does the man or woman in the camp care about any of that? What does he care about a computer when he can't even earn his daily living? About 55% unemployment in the West Bank and Gaza - and he brings a casino to Jericho!
E: Would you say that there are a lot of Palestinians who don't consider Arafat their leader?
B: Oh yeah!
E: So why is the attention always focused on Arafat?
B: First of all, Arafat is no alternative, in the sense that he ruled by force, by authoritarianism. Today he can make you the minister of I don't know what - he will create something for you. Tomorrow morning he changes his mind, you're out. He decides who to give money to and who not. He had all the Palestinian organizations under his rule. And there is nobody to take Arafat's place. It's a damned if you do, damned if you don't situation. If he goes, somebody who's more to the right than Arafat is going to come, somebody representing that class of people.
In the struggle for power, the left has not been able to form an alternative. But not only in Palestine, in the Arab world altogether. Every single democratic movement was beaten down by the regimes. Arafat himself sent people to kill people who were offering an alternative point of view, they were chasing them in the streets of Iraq or Paris. Big thinkers were assassinated by orders of Arafat. We have a leadership that is still a remnant of the old feudalist system, that does not appreciate freedom of thinking or offer a plurality of expression and so on.
So this is why Israel and the United States are always very comfortable. The US talks to the Arab governments like they are their servants. There is no respect for the Arabs, and the Arab governments show no respect to their people and no respect for themselves either.
E: What do you think is going on with the American media? Why is the Palestinian perspective never represented?
B: The United States is the only country where you only see a one-way communication. They feed us, they give us water, they put us to sleep at their own will. Even the BBC, which is the other colonial media entity, is better than the US media. If you have a satellite dish, turn on Al-Jazeera, the Arabic channel. You don't need to understand what they're saying, just watch the news in pictures, you will know what's going on. It is that bad. To keep saying that we ruined the whole Jenin camp because they were booby-trapping the houses, that's bullshit. They turned houses on the people living in them, people who were crippled couldn't get out in time, they simply brought the bulldozers in.
E: I just heard Gordon Smith [OR Senator] on KBOO the other morning saying that you can't trust British papers because they represented what happened in Jenin as a massacre.
B: There is a strong Zionist lobby in the country and there is a lot of Zionist influence. And yes, the Jews do not control the world or the United States. But they certainly share - not as a community, I'm talking about the upper crust - in the injustice that happens in society. So there are things that we need to start talking about. We need to be careful that we don't fall into the trap of becoming anti-Semitic. However, we cannot, because we're afraid of becoming anti-Semitic, not start cracking this egg.
As for the Bush administration, yes they're racist, but there's a meeting of interests. Israel to begin with was created as a permanent foothold in the area to protect colonial interests. And the only way they became so was because they suggested to the colonial powers, give us a colony in one of your properties around the world so that we can become the bulwark of civilization against the barbarians in the area. Herzl [founder of Israel] wrote to Cecil Rhodes. Cecil Rhodes was of course the architect for settling South Africa.
So he wrote to Rhodes to discuss with him a place for the Jews to go to. And he started out the letter by saying something like, "How dare I ask you? It is because it is something colonial," just like that. So this historic claim to Palestine is a bunch of bull. I mean, just find anybody in the world and go tell them, we want to go back to that place that was ours 3,000 years ago. What would you do? Would you listen to them? I mean, it's a bunch of bull - 3,000 years ago! We didn't repatriate the blacks, we didn't repatriate the Native Americans - we're still stealing from them today. So why is it one thing here and another thing there? It seems to be a contradiction, but it's not. It's perfectly harmonious because in both cases it's colonialism.
E: What do you think will change the situation in Palestine, and what can people here do to make a difference?
B: The peace movement is in disarray. The consciousness in America is so backwards, whether it's mainstream or left, it's so backwards! The United States is the strongest country in the world militarily, supposedly the richest in the world, but it's the most backward in its thinking. Up to now we're still discussing whether a woman has the right to choose, whether it's okay to have an abortion bill or not. We're still talking about evolution versus creationism. Even though it's not written in law, this system was founded on Christian beliefs. They're alienating everyone, including the Jews. It's the imposition of Christianity. It's a highly consumer based economy where your self-worth is driven by whether you can have cable or not at home but it's not driven by what's good for everyone else, for the collective. And unfortunately that affects the movement of change.
But what we need to do in the end is to create a big intentional Palestine solidarity movement in the country. One that says enough is enough. Just like we had strong movements in solidarity with Latin America and the free South Africa movement - that's what we need to do here. And we need to listen finally to what the Palestinians have to say, and not view them only through the prism of, they're anti-Jewish. We're not anti-Jewish.
We need to have a state in the West Bank and Gaza - a state that is viable, not that is made of 200 different pieces dissected from each other. Like, if you want to go from Ramallah to Jenin, which is like an hour's drive, you have to go through settlements or confiscated land and land controlled by Israel and checkpoints by Israel - what kind of living is this? Imagine if you want to visit your relatives in Jenin? It is a life that is so oppressed. They turn the water on and they turn it off whenever they want. They give them electricity and they turn it off whenever they want. They shift the water away from Palestinian lands in order to give it to the settlements. You'll find Israeli settlers sitting at home next to the pool reading the paper and the sprinkler is running, and you find Palestinians carrying a jar, walking maybe a mile to get to the water. We have to stop treating the Palestinians as a non-entity.
Right now they're calling for the international solidarity movement to go down to the West Bank and Gaza. And if you want we can start working on a delegation from Portland, specifically including minorities too. Because the black community needs to see what's happening, the Latino community needs to see what's happening.
Very deep inside the black community you wouldn't find reactions to the Palestinian issue like you would to the South African issue. You will find people who are supportive, but others who could care less, just like the rest of the public. They tend to view the world only through the prism of their own oppression - and rightly so in a way because they're the lowest on the totem pole. And what has the Arab community in America done to work with the black community or the Latino community? That's another leadership problem that we have in the States.
What we need to do is send a delegation of community leaders, people who can be opinion-makers within their own community. From the white community there are many people who are beginning to wake up to this situation. We need to take those, people from Portland Peaceful Response, people in public office maybe.
After 911, Picun and Mano a Mano in Salem came to us and said, why don't you come and talk to us about the Palestine question, because they were afraid at that moment. People were confusing them with Arabs and beating them up.
E: There's been such an escalation of violence and discrimination against all people of color here -
B: Sure, and we don't hear much about it, because the system also created this war. Just like Israel is creating a wall around the Jews, the United States, this system, is creating this wall around the people. I mean, look at how they flooded to Ground Zero after 911. It's good that people pull together like this, but at the same time it tells you that they don't know how much of a common occurrence it is elsewhere and that they're totally oblivious to what's going on in the world.
E: I see a parallel to Israel in the sense that after 911 the response here is, We're being attacked, this is about our survival, and in order to survive as a society we need to annihilate all these other people who are out to get us.
B: And in Israel it's, We are god's chosen people, and in America it's, God Bless America. It's the same theme, different words but the same theme, to make us feel good.
Aysha: I'm wondering if you've talked to any Israeli Jews - do you think there's a peace movement happening there of any significance?
B: Remember the Israeli who came here last month? He is a soldier who is against being in the Occupied Territories - which is another misleading term, because all Palestine is occupied territory. I was surprised by what he was saying, because that's exactly what I would have said. When they told him, But we need to protect our borders, he said, Which borders? Because we don't have any borders, which is true. Israel from day one refused to declare any borders. Even with the partition plan they refused to declare any borders.
While he was talking someone asked him about Yassar Arafat and he said, All he wants is the White House. I started laughing because that's what I would have told people, that he doesn't care about the grassroots movement.
A: Do you feel like the movement is strong within Israel?
B: No. They had 100,000 come out in a demonstration in Tel Aviv yesterday against the war in West Bank and Gaza, Gush Shalom organized it. But remember that in early stages of the Intifada, the Peace Now movement turned against the Palestinians. I was listening to them on NPR and heard a spokesperson say, No no, we can't accept this kind of thing, we were with them but now we're against them, this means they want to get rid of the Jews - they started speaking like that!
So the peace movement in Israel and the peace movement in America are very similar. They will wake up when the body bags start coming back - their own body bags. But they're not for the principle of the matter, that this is wrong and we need to bind with others against what is wrong. It's just, don't hurt us. The discussion among members of the Israeli cabinet now before going into Gaza is how we should enter because we don't want to have high casualty rates. It's not that we're going to kill these poor people. Collective punishment is second nature to Israel. They think the last suicide bomber came out from Gaza.
And that's another controversial issue, the suicide bombing. My wife, my kids and I are having an argument about it - I support it, they don't. I don't support it as a strategic thing, I'm supporting it within particular circumstances. Not as a thing you do all the time. What else do people have? They reach such a level of frustration that if you're going to kill me, well, I'll die but I'll take you with me. You can't fight against someone who is willing to die. Because, whether we agree on it or not, there is a certain amount of courage in doing this, a certain amount of pure sacrifice that the system itself lacks. The system works on the principle of the heaviest casualty to you, no casualties to me. The suicide bomber turns it around. I'm going to insult you. I'm going to die, but I'm going to take people from you. It's an act of desperation.
A: What about civil disobedience in the sense of Gandhi - would that have any sort of sway in this situation?
B: You see, when you are in a revolution, like the Palestinian people have been, it's not that you choose one form over the other form. There might be a moment when what people call non-violence might be one avenue. But we feel people are asking us this in order drop the guns, as if we're going to change things that much if we lay down on the ground and let the tanks run over us. You're dealing with fascism. And there is a very simplistic attitude, not you, I'm not saying you, but this question when it's asked usually it's also within the realm of hey man, peace - I mean there's no depth to the question.
A: I'm just wondering if it would work.
B: It might work, but at this moment I doubt it, I don't think it's an option right now.
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